Good ingredients alone do not make for haute cuisine. To shift that analogy over, Free State arrives with all the right ideas and no clear notion what to do with them. Worthy and deeply earnest as it is, Salmon de Jager’s romantic drama, set in Apartheid South Africa, is a disappointingly lifeless experience, never able to inject enough spark to engage.

An opening voiceover ladles on the exposition, setting the tone for what’s to come. It’s the late 1970s and the racially divisive South African regime is in full swing. White law student Jeanette’s (Nicola Breytenbach) narration floats over dispiriting images of unrest and cruelty, rushing through her family situation before moving onto the wider world. She pauses on a couple of specific laws, a clear and unnecessary hint that both are shortly to be broken.

When she’s done setting things up, we find her leaving university for the drive back to her home in Free State province. The daughter of a reverend (Deon Lotz), she has a fiancé off on military duty, and everything set up for a life as housewife and mother, something she actively wants according to an early conversation with friends. Then the front tyre blows out on her orange Beetle and she meets Ravi (Andrew Govender), the engaged son of Indian shop owners who has no place fraternising with a white woman. But love is love and soon they’re off gallivanting at picturesque countryside hideaways, revelling in an illegal romance that could spell ruin for everyone if the authorities catch wind.

There are many problems with Free State, but the main one comes with Jeanette and Ravi. The whole affair takes place at a distance. Both actors read lines without real passion, building ties on the flimsiest of pretexts. Apparently being a fan of Star Wars and Love Story is enough to win Ravi’s heart. As for Jeanette, she undergoes a complete change in character from stay-at home domestic to fight the power gambler, neither incarnation particularly convincing.

To muddy the waters further, de Jager throws a number of complications at the canvas in the hope something will light a fire under a gently simmering romance. Police forces are led to the area to investigate what they consider to be a terrorist cell, Ravi and his family have their own awkward situation with the relatives of the woman he is supposed to marry, and Jeanette’s family servant Maria (Leleti Khumalo), a woman of Zulu descent, keeps popping up as a clumsy tool to both build bridges between different people, and demonstrate the walls that remain.

Nothing Free State attempts is too far out. The film tackles complicated social issues under the umbrella of yearning romance, mixing in additional elements to flesh out the world. It could have worked, but when each piece slots together, the final picture is simply dull.

Director: Salmon de Jager
Writer: Salmon de Jager
Stars: Nicola Breytenbach, Andrew Govender, Deon Lotz, Leleti Khumalo
Runtime: 98 mins
Country: South Africa

Film Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

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